Cultivating Confidence: Using Fear as a Tool

By Chris Olsen

If you struggle to talk about your business publicly, you’re not alone. Women entrepreneurs face a number of obstacles, and many things influence our ability to communicate with confidence. Having worked with hundreds of women leaders and business owners to hone their public relations and speaking efforts, I can say for certain that confident communicators embrace three important strategies: They recognize fear for what it is and use it as a tool; they reject gender and cultural biases as the “norm”; and they understand that being confident in who you are requires knowing what you stand for. I address each of these strategies in a three-part blog. In this blog (part one), I explore using fear as a tool.

To overcome fear, it helps to first understand what happens to your brain when you’re afraid. Scientists believe the human brain is like three in one. Your reptilian brain is responsible for primitive drives like thirst, hunger, sex, and establishing and guarding your turf. Your old mammal brain is in charge of memory, motivation and emotions. And your new mammal brain is responsible for language, reasoning and planning.

Fear is basically your reptilian brain telling you it perceives a threat. This has long been critical to our survival. When our cave-dwelling ancestors encountered a saber-toothed tiger, their reptilian brain screamed, “You’re going to die!” It sparked a physical reaction to tackle the tiger, run like hell, or hide in a cave until the coast was clear.

While the human brain has evolved, our initial reaction to a perceived threat is still fight or flight. The good news is that at some point our advanced new mammal brain typically takes over to assess a threat and make a rational decision about what to do next. The bad news is that sometimes we get stuck in our reptilian brain. And these days, it’s not just the threat of a tiger that can stop us in our tracks. A threat to our social structure can evoke the same reaction.

This can happen to anyone at any time. It happens to even the most confident of communicators preparing to face an audience of one or one thousand. It’s not an abnormal reaction; it’s how humans are wired. The key is recognizing it and developing new habits to get out of your primitive brain. Here are a few ways how:

Identify and Acknowledge Your Fear

Identifying what you’re afraid of is a necessary first step in conquering your fear. The next time you’re preparing to speak in public and your nerves are getting the best of you, ask yourself, “What am I really afraid of?” Take some time to journal about it, write it on a Post-it, or simply say it out loud. Then, remind yourself that fear is a signal from your reptilian brain, which is just trying to keep you safe. Acknowledge and address it directly. “Hey Lizzie Lizard Brain, I appreciate the heads-up, but pitching my business to a potential investor is not life-threatening. In fact, it’s an amazing opportunity to get much-needed resources to grow my company. So, thank you for your service, but I’ve got this.” Or you could just tell the ol’ reptile to scram.

Take a Breath

Sometimes in the moment, when fear strikes, it can be tricky to identify your fear and make a logical decision about what to do next. Get into the habit of shifting your focus from your mind to your body—and specifically your breathing. As you start to panic, try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Inhale deeply through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. If you can’t remember the timing, make up your own. Focus on counting and the physical act of taking air into your lungs and releasing it. Repeat the process a few times until your head is clear. With practice, your first reaction to fear will be to just breathe.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

It’s human nature to choose comfort and to surround yourself with all that is soft, safe and secure. But breakthroughs and aha moments rarely come from inside comfort zones. Make a weekly habit of doing something that scares you. Designate “Scary Saturdays” as the day to try out a new cuisine, introduce yourself to someone you’ve been dying to meet, or sign up for an event you keep talking yourself out of. Rather than making your weekly challenge about facing your biggest fears, focus on facing something you continually avoid because it makes you uncomfortable. The more you take small steps out of your comfort zone, the more courageous you become. Soon you’ll be tackling the unknown head-on without hesitation.

What new habits will you develop to get out of your primitive brain?

About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.

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